Built to Last: J.G. Brill’s “Bullets”
April 5, 2007 § 13 Comments
The below is the business end of one of the city’s most recognizable industrial products. Like the Stetson hat, the Atwater Kent radio, a Disston saw, or a Cramp’s ship, the trolleys and interurban cars produced by the J.G. Brill Company at 31st and Chestnut and later 62nd and Woodland were some of the most sophisticated and durable pieces of industrial machinery ever to roll off a Philadelphia assembly line. The below car in SEPTA livery, a Brill “Bullet,” #206 was designed in 1931 and is a specimen of industrial design that plied the rails between 69th St. Terminal and Norristown until 1990.
Though it was vogue in the 1930s to streamline consumer products — most of which never had to move through air or water quickly — the growing popularity of automobiles and buses meant that Brill Bullet’s design had to get passengers to their destination quicker than other forms of tranport. One of the few successful designs by committee, the Brill Bullet was the brainchild of Thomas Conway, Jr., president of the Philadelphia and Western Railroad who headed a special conference of transit officials, the Presidents Conference Committee (PCC), convened to rekindle the public’s interest in traveling by trolley.
The product of that conference, the famous PCC car first ran in 1936 to modest public acclaim but the sleek trolley could not stem systems’ chronic ridership losses. Yet the standardized design that allowed for flexible modifications was immensely popular and thousands were built for systems across the country. The elusive promise that sleek design could save mass transit, however, was captivating and influenced the design of the Brill Bullet.
Thomas Conway also figured that the Philadelphia and Western could use a streamlined car–not to woo crowds but to run faster than his railroad rivals, the Pennsylvania and the Reading. Time laid out Conway’s plan in a 1931 blurb “To Beat the Reading”:
A new interurban car, claimed to be the fastest electric car ever built for commuter service and more modern in design than the most modern bus, made trial runs at Philadelphia last week. It was built by J. G. Brill Co. for Philadelphia & Western Railway and is the first of ten such cars which will run between Philadelphia’s 69th Street station and Norristown at an average speed of 52½ m.p.h., including stops. It seats 52 passengers, costs $30,000.
The designers say the car has made 90 m.p.h., will make more. It resembles the fuselage of an airplane, with no protruding wind-resisting parts. The body is aluminum alloy. The centre of gravity is low for safety. Tests showed the streamline construction would afford a power reduction of 17% at 20 m.p.h., 42½% at 90 m.p.h. It was designed by President Thomas Conway Jr. of Philadelphia & Western; Felix Pawlowski, Guggenheim professor of aeronautics at the University of Michigan; and Brill Co. experts. President Conway, meeting competition by Pennsylvania R. R. and Reading Co., expects to beat their time of 36 min. from Norristown to the heart of Philadelphia. He is chairman of a committee of electric railway officials which is spending half a million dollars on research to make electric cars faster, more sightly.
Image courtesy of Mike Szilagyi.
Interestingly enough, the success and durability of these cars was not a harbinger of good fortune for the company that constructed them. Though the reasons for the company’s premature exit from the transit market are murky, it appears that the Brill Company did not adequately plan for the process of “motorization” or the conversion of electric trolleys to busses and trackless trolleys. Between 1902 and 1921 the Brill Company expanded at a feverish pace, buying up trolley builders and opening satellite companies in France and Canada. But in 1933 Brill posted a $1 million loss and by 1940 Brill had ceased producing trolleys and inaugurated its bus line — well after most other companies. Wrongheadedly the company tried to take on the PCC car with its ill-fated Brilliner but suffered abysmal sales. This precipitous decline is unique yet emblematic of the rapid changes occurring in transit economics in mid-20th century. Brill became ACF-Brill Motors by 1944 and ten years later ACF-Brill was no more.
J.G. Brill Company plot, 1942.
BRILL RESOURCES ONLINE:
–www.phillytrolley.org and www.world.nycsubway.com have some excellent images of Brill Bullets in action on the P&W or current Route 100 line from the 60s/70s/80. Mike Szilagyi has the best site devoted to PTC/PRT/PSTC/SEPTA light rail/trolley around.
–The image of Brill #206 is from the Electric City Trolley Museum in Scranton which has a good amount of ex-Philly equipment.